There have been some heartfelt eulogies in fandom for Studio Fantasia, which has declared bankruptcy after a generation in the anime business, most notoriously with its micro-skirted spies in Agent Aika and its panty-flashing operatives in Najica Blitz Tactics.
Fantasia itself was born under suspicious circumstances, by staff manning the lifeboats from the foundering Tsuchida Production in 1983. Tsuchida eventually sank in 1986, but to say it went down with all hands would be misleading – by the time it went, it was a name on a filing cabinet, without real estate, equipment or employees, while its former staff were already running Studios Comet and Fantasia.
It’s important when reporting the history of the anime business to understand the difference between a disaster and a simple change in circumstances. Studio Fantasia, from what I can see, appeared to shut down because it was little more than some signatures on paperwork that allowed a guy to get some bank loans. Tomohisa Iizuka, the man who led the exodus from Tsuchida all those years ago, set up a company that in its 2006 heyday was bringing in £2.7 million a year and had 43 employees. But if Iizuka wants to retire, and if there is nobody willing to take on the company and its liabilities… if the company itself has no intellectual property worth preserving, then Fantasia might as well cease to exist on the day that Iizuka puts on his golf shorts and heads out to the country club.
As the director Noboru Ishiguro put it in his memoirs: “It is so easy to create a TV animation subcontractor. That’s because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is needed. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy tables for animators, all you need is people. You could start an animation production company tomorrow. But they go bankrupt quickly, too – just like a pub. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors can never make large profits. You’re lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”
2006 wasn’t just a peak for Fantasia, it was a peak for the entire anime industry. The studio visibly slowed over the following decade, until it was just picking up a few bits of piece-work on a couple of recent shows. It was not, like Studio Ghibli, initiating and owning new content. But it was, like Studio Ghibli, very much the workplace for a group of guys who were looking forward to not having to work anymore. Except the guy who draws knickers, for whom it is still probably still a labour of love.
Then again, never say never. Who would have guessed at the beginning of last year that the “next Hayao Miyazaki” would turn out to be Hayao Miyazaki?
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #159, 2017.